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(post, Donia Clark)
I grew up in a small town in Western New York. My family wasn't much into cooking. My grandmother was the first to benefit from the miracle of frozen and processed foods that began being popular in the 1950s. She no longer had to labor for hours to make goulash. She could just fry up some hamburger, boil some boxed macaroni, pop open a jar of sauce, mix it all together and voila! Just like grandma used to make! Sorta. But with six rambunctious kids, grandma was more concerned with getting them fed right away than getting them fed right. No one knew those salt and fat-laden containers were not the best thing to load up on, so load up on them my family did While my father was alive, he expected a meat-and-potatoes meal when he came home. Mom usually broiled or boiled (blecch!) some meat (Thursday was always liver night, ugh!) and served them with frozen vegetables that had been boiled (ewww!) and instant potatoes or one of those flavored noodle or rice packages where you could just add some hot water and have a salty side dish in minutes. After my father died (of a heart attack), we were much poorer and my mother gave up the meat and two sides dinners in favor of one-dish Hamburger or Tuna Helper with frozen or canned (yuck!) vegetables thrown in. Hot dogs and ramen noodles also became staples. The rest of my relatives cooked much the same way. In 1977, Western New York was buried under a blizzard that dumped about 14 feet of snow on the ground in three days. My mother was in Buffalo visiting my father in the hospital. My brother and I were stranded at one of my aunt and uncle's house. It was there that I had my first taste of "Mexican" cooking. My aunt Debi made salsa chicken and baked corn. I think she got the recipe off a can of corn. She took a couple cans of corn, drained them and mixed them in a saucepan with half a package of small brick of cream cheese and a few tablespoons of butter. She heated the whole thing until the cream cheese was melted. She then drained a small can of diced green chiles and stirred them into the corn along with a little garlic. Then she poured the whole concoction into a small baking dish and put it in the oven for about 30 minutes. In the meantime, she threw some chicken in a pan and smothered it with a jar of salsa. At the time, I thought it was the best thing ever. My mom didn't like spicy stuff, so our diet was very bland. This "Mexican" dish seemed so exotic to me. I carried the recipe around in my head for years until my mom let me get near the stove. I used to make it quite often. After I started thinking I needed to eat healthier, it fell by the wayside, but once or twice a year, I get a craving for that "Mexican" dish. Last night was one of those nights. For a moment, I was back in my small-town, white-trash youth. Now that I live in a big city where I get authentic Mexican cooking and make serviceable variations, that dish no longer seems exotic, just a quaint throwback to a time I'm glad has passed.